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A choice of contemplations

Last week’s post on the problematic nature of binary thinking went out of its way to sidestep the most explosive of the binaries in contemporary industrial culture. That was a necessary evasion; those of my readers who are following the argument I’ve been developing over most of the last two months have now had a week to mull over the point I’ve raised in that post, to consider its pitfalls and possibilities, and to get ready for a hard look the most sacrosanct binary of our time: the binary between society as it is and society as we want it to become.

That’s become a hot issue in the news of late, and a significant part of that unfolds from the presence of the Occupy protests in various downtowns. There’s a complex magical context to that fact. The vast majority of Americans these days believe that something has gone very wrong with their country, but there’s nothing like a national consensus about what has gone wrong, much less how to fix it. By chance or design, the Occupy movement has capitalized on this by refusing to be pinned down to specific demands or specific critiques, mounting a protest in which protest itself is the central content. Tactically speaking, this is brilliant; it’s created a movement that anyone with a grievance can join.

The movement has also displayed a deft hand at the sort of binary thaumaturgy we discussed last week. Over the last few months, it has capably promoted a narrative in which it claims to speak for 99% of Americans while assigning its opponents the remainder. This is a difficult trick for what is, after all, a tiny protest movement supported by a minority of Americans, but I can’t think of an example since Lenin redefined his little revolutionary faction as “the Majority”—that’s what bolshevik means in Russian—where it has been carried off with such aplomb.

As this example may suggest, I’m of two minds about the Occupy phenomenon. If it follows the trajectory mapped out in a recent press release, holds a national convention next July to set out its demands, and forms a third party when those demands aren’t met, American politics could undergo a seismic shift. A successful third party in America rarely remains a third party for long; in 1860, when the Republicans first took the White House, the Whig party imploded and a political landscape that had been fixed in place since the republic’s early decades changed forever. That could happen again, and if it does, it’s probably the Democratic Party’s turn to land face first in history’s compost heap; after three decades pushing policies that could uncharitably but accurately be described as GOP Lite, the Dems are practically defenseless against a strong challenge from further to the left.

Such a challenge might work out well, or it might not. If the movement turns away from the options for change that our constitution provides, though, things become much harder to anticipate, and some of the possible outcomes are very ugly indeed. Mass protest movements, as anyone who’s followed current events knows well, are quite capable of destabilizing a nation, but what comes into being in their wake is a complete crapshoot. It’s never safe to assume that the character of the protests will be reflected in the system they put into power; both the French and Russian revolutions began with lively participatory democracy, and ended in the Terror and the gulags. There’s no certainty that successful mass protest in America will go the same way—but it’s critical for all concerned to realize that it could.

That brings us back in turn to the binary I mentioned above. I sincerely doubt that there’s anyone in America today who doesn’t cherish the thought that if only the right political changes were made, the world would be a much better place. I have such thoughts fairly often, though they’re tempered in my case by the wry realization that the changes I’d most like to see, if put to a popular ballot, would probably not get a single favorable vote other than mine. Daydream politics of this sort are now and then helpful, since that’s one of the ways that people come up with the currently unthinkable notions that will dominate serious politics fifty years from now, but in times of severe social stress they can feed into the sort of unwelcome consequences I’ve outlined above.

The structure of binary logic plays a large role in this. Remember that the binary reaction is meant to produce snap judgments in stressful situations, and it has no gray areas at all; a distant bit of color in a tree is either food or it’s not, the snap of a twig breaking in the forest behind you is either a predator or it’s not, and our australopithecine ancestors didn’t normally have to cope with things that were partly food and partly a predator, and might turn into one or the other depending on how a set of complex processes went. They also didn’t, as far as we know, have to deal with other australopithecines trying to convince them that food was predators and predators were food.

Part of the human predicament is that we do have to deal with such complex choices, where one thing can be an object of desire and an object of fear at the same time; we have to do that with a nervous system that still has most of its australopithecine reactions hardwired into place; and we have to deal with the fact that other people are trying to manipulate us against our best interests using those reactions. Politics is only one of the arenas where this is a major issue, to be sure, but the level of stress in politics is very often higher than elsewhere, and it’s thus far from rare for people who make nuanced judgments in other contexts to fall into extreme binary thinking when it comes to politics.

This is where we get the conviction, which is limited to the fringes in ordinary times but spreads rapidly into the mass of the population in times of extreme social stress, that the existing order of society is the worst possible state of affairs, and that any change to it must therefore be a change for the better. This is binary logic in its purest form: the existing order is bad, therefore whatever replaces the existing order must be good; since the existing order is bad, it’s equated with every other bad thing, even those that contradict each other, while whatever is to replace the existing order, since it’s good, can’t be bad in any sense. Add in white-hot emotions on all sides of the equation, and you get today’s fringe politics—and quite possibly the mainstream politics of tomorrow.

Still, the binary reaction isn’t the only factor at work Another bit of practical psychology that’s been used by operative mages for a very long time also comes into play, especially when the politics of an age are more intently focused on denouncing the existing order than in offering a coherent alternative to it. You’ll find this principle expressed in different ways in magical traditions, but the phrasing I first learned is to my mind the one that expresses it best: what you contemplate, you imitate.

It’s important to realize, before we go on, that this phrase means no more than it says, which is simply that the more attention you focus on something, the more likely you are to imitate it. In particular, it doesn’t mean that you can get anything you want simply by wanting it badly enough, or concentrating on it long enough; your own thoughts, words, and actions will be shaped by whatever most often fills the center of your attention, but if imitating whatever fills the center of your attention won’t get you what you want, the effect isn’t going to help you. Contemplating a new toaster oven, in other words, won’t get you one, it’ll simply make you imitate one—which is not exactly a useful thing under most conditions. If what you want to accomplish can be done by changing your thoughts, words, and actions, on the other hand, contemplation on carefully chosen subjects can accomplish a great deal; this is one of the major working tools of magic.

Like the binary reaction, the contemplation reaction has roots reaching deep into our evolutionary history. One of the reasons that mammals have been the dominant land animals on this planet for the last fifty million years or so is that they evolved the trick of supplementing inherited behavioral patterns with learned ones picked up early in life from one or both parents. Watch kittens learning how to hunt from their mother, and you’re seeing one of the foundations of mammalian dominance; the kittens watch every move intently, and then imitate therepertoire of motions in play. Rinse and repeat, and your kittens have a set of behaviors that are nicely adapted to local conditions. Primates do this even more than other mammals; there’s a reason we all know the phrase "monkey see, monkey do."

Every religious tradition that’s been around long enough to put together a decent collection of magical technique uses the resulting reaction to the hilt. Visit an old-fashioned Catholic or Orthodox church, a Hindu temple, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery, or what have you, and you’ll find yourself surrounded by a wealth of imagery, designed and created according to precise patterns handed down by tradition, inviting you to contemplation. In religions such as Islam and Judaism, which reject representational images, exactly the same effect is produced by the words of sacred texts that are in many places ablaze with vivid verbal imagery.

A Buddhist burning incense before an image of a bodhisattva, a Christian prayerfully studying the narratives of the Bible, or for that matter a Druid standing with arms outstretched in the midst of circle of trees in the rain, taking part in the dance of the natural world, are all contemplating that which they hope, in their own way, to imitate. All three, and their equivalents in other traditions, are aware of the other side of the balance; the Buddhist affirms the reality of suffering, the Christian likely considers original sin as a fact of existence, the Druid knows full well that the dance of nature also includes pain and death, but the devotional and meditative practices of these and other faiths carefully balance such reflections with a more sustained contemplation of exactly those things the believer seeks to imitate.

Still, the intellectual assent and emotional exaltation of the worshipper in the presence of the holy are not required to give the effect we’re discussing its power. The contemplation effect is remarkably independent of the other activities of the mind, and in particular, it works regardless of the thoughts and feelings you associate with the object of contemplation. One of the more bitterly ironic narratives in recent American history shows this independence in action.

When the neoconservative movement burst on the American scene in the last years of the 20th century, some thinkers in the older and more, well, conservative ends of the American right noted with a good deal of disquiet that the "neocons" had very little in common with conservatism in any historically meaningful sense of that word. In the Anglo-American world, conservatism had its genesis in the writings of Edmund Burke (1729-1797), who argued for an organic concept of society, and saw social and political structures as phenomena evolving over time in response to the needs and possibilities of the real world. Burke objected, not to social change—he was a passionate supporter of the American Revolution, for instance—but to the notion, popular among revolutionary ideologues of his time (and of course since then as well), that it was possible to construct a perfect society according to somebody’s abstract plan, and existing social structures should therefore be overthrown so that this could be done.

By and large, Burke’s stance was the intellectual driving force behind Anglo-American conservatism from Burke’s own time until the late twentieth century, though of course—politics being what they are—it was no more exempt from being used as rhetorical camouflage for various crassly selfish projects than were the competing ideas on the other end of the political spectrum. Still, beginning in the 1920s, a radically different sense of what conservatism ought to be took shape on the fringes of the right wing in America and elsewhere, and moved slowly inward over the decades that followed. The rise to power of the neoconservatives in 2000 marked the completion of this trajectory.

This new version of conservatism stood in flat contradiction to Burke and the entire tradition descended from him. It postulated that a perfect society could indeed be brought into being, by following a set of ideological prescriptions set out by Ayn Rand and detailed by an assortment of economists, political scientists, and philosophers, of whom Leo Strauss was the most influential. It called for a grand crusade that would not only make over the United States in the image of its ideal, but spread the same system around the world by any means necessary. It argued that bourgeois sentimentality about human rights and the rule of law should not stand in the way of the glorious capitalist revolution, and went on to create a familiar landscape of prison camps, torture, and aggressive war waged under dubious pretexts. Neoconservatism, in other words, was not conservatism at all; it was to Communism precisely what Satanism is to Christianity, a straightforward inversion that adopted nearly every detail of the Third International’s philosophy, rhetoric and practice and simply reversed some of the value judgments.

The magical principle we’ve just discussed explains this bizarre bit of ideological transformation. The main figures in the neoconservative movement entered public life in one or another of the panics over Communism that swept through the American right every decade or so from 1919 until just before the Soviet Union’s collapse. Like most political panics, these focused obsessively on the feared and hated Other, and a glance back through the biographies of prominent figures in neoconservatism shows plenty of involvement in that pastime. The result of this fixation of attention was utterly predictable to anyone with a grasp of magical theory: what the "neocons" contemplated, they imitated.

The same process can be seen in action all through the culture of denuciation that has replaced civil discourse in so much of contemporary life. From the evangelical preachers whose spluttering polemics about homosexuality provide an interesting counterpoint to their propensity for being caught in compromising positions with their boyfriends, to the militant atheists whose hostility toward religion is neatly matched by their eagerness to match the intolerance and self-righteousness of its least impressive forms, today’s society is well stocked with object lessons relating to this branch of magical philosophy. Still, such reflections are less important just now than the issues raised at the beginning of this essay.

The decision on the part of the Occupy movement to create a protest with protest itself as its only fixed content was, as I suggested earlier, a brilliant tactical stroke. What makes for good tactics, though, may not be equally wise as strategy. If the movement proceeds along the lines mentioned already, moving to the formulation of demands and then to the pursuit of active political goals, it has a good chance of dodging the inherent strategic weaknesses of its tactical choice. The longer it tries to avoid formulating its own coherent vision, though, the more likely it is to find itself following out the implications of someone else’s vision. That may happen by way of the contemplation effect—there’s a reason why revolutions so often end up installing governments all but identical to the ones they overthrow—or by way of any of several other modes of derailment; as history shows, a movement of the kind we’re discussing can run off the rails in any of a remarkable number of ways.

Of course, the peak oil movement is at least as vulnerable to deflection along these same lines. From its beginning, a great many people in that latter movement have focused attention on visions of a very troubled future. That focus was reasonable and indeed inevitable, especially early on; over the last three centuries, and more particularly over the last three decades, modern industrial civilization has backed itself into a very tight corner, and that reality needs to be recognized; trying to imitate a fantasy of sustainable growth by contemplating it, while refusing to recognize the hard material constraints that make it a fantasy, is exactly the kind of confusion between what magic can do and what technology can do that occupied an earlier post in this series. Again, contemplating a toaster oven won’t get you one; it’ll just make you more prone to overheat and burn the toast.

Yet it’s important to balance the recognition of inflexible planetary limits with a clear sense of the way human consciousness responds to such reflections, and to avoid the pitfalls that come from spending too much time contemplating what you don’t want to imitate. There are any number of ways to attain the necessary balance; those of my readers who follow religious, spiritual, or magical traditions have ample resources; those who don’t may find the regular contemplation of nature and natural systems to be an effective response; and of course one of the many reasons why I’ve encouraged readers who are interested in pursuing the "green wizardry" advocated in these posts to collect books and other information sources from the appropriate-tech movement of the 70s is that these tend to be stocked with colorful visions of the future we could have had—and even though that future is water under the micro-hydro turbine at this point, imitating it is by no means a useless strategy even this late in the game.

One way or another, though, what you contemplate, you imitate. Choose your contemplations well.

There are two details I should mention here for the benefit of readers. First, by the time this post goes up I will be at this year’s ASPO-USA conference in Washington DC; I’ve arranged to have comments put through, but won’t be responding to them until I get back.

Second, the anthology of science fiction short stories about a post-peak oil future, which I proposed in a post a little while back, has taken a major step toward realization; after talking to a couple of publishers, I have one that’s interested. I’d like to ask everyone who has a story in the works, but hasn’t yet submitted it, to get it up on the internet and post a link to it in the comments to this post by November 10. Yes, that’s a firm deadline.

I’d also like to ask everybody who’s submitted a story to get me your real name, email address, and mailing address, so I can get in touch with you if your story is selected for the anthology. The easy way to do that is to submit a comment to this post with that info, and a note asking me not to put it through. I’ll copy down the info and delete the post.

I’ve received upwards of fifty stories so far, by the way, ranging from quite readable to stunningly good, and it’s going to take some hard work to winnow the selection down to the 12 or 14 stories that will go into the anthology. Many thanks to all for your submissions, and I hope that even those of you whose stories aren’t selected gain something from the experience.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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